Each one of us can make a difference. Together we make change’ Barbara Mikulski 

In recent years, humanity has become more aware of climate change and the actions needed to care for our planet and its resources.  In 2018, the world’s leading climate scientists warned that there were only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5 degrees celsius.   

In 2019, Exeter City Council unanimously agreed to declare a climate emergency and made the commitment to make Exeter a carbon-neutral (or net-zero carbon) city by 2030. 

Each one of us can do our bit to make a difference.  Even if we all made just a few small changes, such as avoiding single-use plastics; we have the collective power to change things. 

In some ways, Exeter has been ‘ahead of the game’ when it comes to ‘thinking green’, especially when it comes to construction.  The first energy-efficient sustainable buildings were designed and built in the city over ten years ago.  

These homes are built to exacting Passivhaus standards and were designed to provide a high level of comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.  Houses that are built with meticulous attention to detail and design.  

We recently caught up with Emma Osmundsen, Managing Director of Exeter City Living, an innovative and sustainable housing developer.  Exeter City Living plays a key role in the construction of Passivhaus homes, creating communities and spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and well-being. 

Emma’s Passivhaus journey began in 2008 when she headed up the development of the UK’s first multi-residential certified Passivhaus scheme for Exeter City Council. Since then, Emma has been responsible for delivering more than 100 Passivhaus homes across the city. 

We asked Emma where her passion for sustainable housing began. 

 ‘I grew up spending a lot of time in my grandparents’ council homes in South Wales.  When I came to work for the City Council 14 years ago, my remit at that time was to look at building a new generation of council homes for the city.  When we were planning those new homes, I reflected back to the years that I’d spent in my grandparents’ homes during the school holidays. They were lovely good size homes with good size gardens, but they were poorly insulated with coal-fired heating systems.  I wanted to really examine how we could build the best possible council housing in the UK.’ 

The council wanted houses to be designed with people and their comfort in mind. 

She continued, ‘One of our key drivers was to address fuel poverty. It was putting people at the heart of what we were designing. That was the starting point of us adopting the international Passivhaus Standard.’  

Passivhaus was chosen as it was a tried and tested performance standard for delivering exemplar homes.    Emma added, ‘Most importantly, they are really comfortable and wonderful homes for people to live in.’ 

Although there was no real awareness of the climate emergency at the time (2008), in addition to being comfortable, the houses were and still are truly energy efficient and also low or zero-carbon.  

Currently, only 1% of new builds in the UK are built to Passivhaus standard.  Exeter has one of the highest concentrations in the country which is largely due to the council’s programme for building social homes to this standard.  The good news is that Exeter City Living is also starting to oversee the building of open market Passivhaus homes in Clifton Hill. 

Emma said, ‘We are seeking to upscale the number of Passivhaus homes across Exeter so that more people have the opportunity of either living in one or being able to buy one.’ 

One of the things that Emma enjoys most is the feedback that she receives from residents.  She said, ‘Ultimately, homes are all about people and it’s creating an environment where people can really thrive that’s conducive to good health and well-being.’ 

We wondered how it really feels to live in a Passivhaus home and were fortunate enough to be introduced to Rose.  Rose, who lives in one of the first Passivhaus homes built in Exeter, said, ‘I love living in it, it’s easy.’ She moved into her home eleven years ago, ‘one of the first in’, as she put it. 

Passivhaus homes are extremely well insulated.  The design incorporates the principles of building biology which is a holistic approach to healthier living.  The aim is to create buildings where the environment is as healthy as possible, both inside and out.   Low toxicity is prioritised by using things like tiled or wooden flooring and filtered air ensures the best internal air quality possible.  

 Rose added, ‘The floors are tiled right the way through, so it’s much cleaner. We don’t have a letterbox on the door because that would mean a draft, so our letterbox is on the outside of the wall. Heating wise, it’s so comfortable. I just love it!’  Rose went on to mention that when she first moved into the house, there had been a technical problem with the system – the only time in eleven years.  It was Christmas time, so not the warmest time of year.  She noticed condensation on the outside of some of the windows so thought she’d better call someone out (excellent insulation means no condensation inside a Passivhaus home).  When the experts arrived after Christmas, they mentioned that the system had been off for days.  Rose was amazed, she hadn’t felt cold at all, the temperature was comfortable.  

We asked Rose how economical the house is, she replied, ‘It is definitely a lot cheaper than a conventional home and it’s all electric.’ 

 The constant supply of fresh filtered air reduces air pollutants and irritants in Rose’s home.  In fact, she told us that she never gets ill.  This might be a coincidence perhaps, but given that she said neither do her neighbours, who also live in Passivhaus homes, somehow the evidence would suggest otherwise.  

A true testament to the beauty and innovation of Passivhaus standard design. Who wouldn’t want a home like that? 

If you’d like to learn more about Passivhaus, click here

Written by Stella Nicholls

Images by Jennifer Zangeneh